On Monday, July 11, the Board of Directors for the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) met to consider the next steps for the District in regards to funding and organizational options. As a way of background – the District was created in 2002 by consolidating three smaller fire districts, the Oakley-Knightsen, Bethel Island and East Diablo. Included in the ECCFPD are the cities of Oakley, Brentwood, the unincorporated communities of Bethel Island, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, Marsh Creek/Morgan Territory, and other areas of unincorporated Contra Costa, 238 square miles. At the time ECCFPD operated eight staffed fire stations, which are staffed 24 hours a day and contracts with CAL FIRE for continual operation of its Sunshine station on Marsh Creek Road. In June of 2010 two stations were closed due to budget constraints, station 57 in Byron and station 58 in Discovery Bay.
The District was initially governed by the County Board of Supervisor. They transferred this responsibility to a locally controlled board in February of 2010. This board consists of four representatives from Brentwood, three from Oakley and two from the county. By the law the number of representatives from each entity is determined by population. An executive board was also created to assist the directors; this board consists of City Managers from Oakley and Brentwood, a county representative, the Fire Chief and legal counsel.
Revenue sources include property taxes (94 percent), intergovernmental revenues (two percent), Oakley fees collected in Summer Lakes (one percent), and miscellaneous sources (three percent). The District’s share of property tax revenues is seven percent in Brentwood, five percent in Oakley, and nine percent on average in unincorporated areas; by comparison, the average fire district property tax share countywide ranges from 12 to 16 percent in cities (served by fire districts) and 13 percent in unincorporated areas. Revenue generation has been a systemic weakness since the district was created.
The District’s preliminary Operating Budget for fiscal year 2011-12 is $11,111,500. The revenue is estimated to be $8,500,000 with $2,650,000 in reserves to cover the expenses. The District projected a fund balance of $742,124 in June 2012; however this figure has been reduced by over $300,000 with the new assessed property value figures released by the County recently.
In search of additional revenues the District has looked at fees. When a fee is assessed the money collected has to equal the cost of the service provided. The District cannot charge fees for its essential fire suppression services; however there are some costs that are recoverable. Starting the process involves a Fee Study to identify the cost of providing service and ensure the fees do not exceed those costs. Then a billing and collection system would have to be created. Estimated revenue is $80,000 to $100,000 per year base on emergency responses.
A benefit assessment fee was looked at next. Since the passage of Proposition 218, the levy of such assessments must be supported by a detailed engineer’s report prepared by a registered professional engineer certified by the State. The engineer’s report must determine the proportional special benefit to each property from the assessment funded services. Some properties, such as vacant sites, receive very little or no special benefit from fire suppression services and probably could not be assessed. The engineer’s report needs to carefully provide ample detail and support for the special benefits conferred by fire suppression services, which could be shown in terms of response times, type of services rendered, or other factors.
The Board declined to approve a draft engineer’s report related to the imposition of a fire services suppression property assessment after hearing testimony about the limited amounts of funding that the assessment would raise, a lack of community support, concerns about the approach taken by the draft report and ultimately, in light of recent court decisions, whether or not the assessment could withstand legal challenges.
For the next step in the process the Board appointed an Ad Hoc Committee consisting of Board members from Oakley, Brentwood and the County. Representatives from United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County Local 1230 were also asked to participate as well as the public. The committee was charged with:
- Service models: The Committee is reviewing different service models with the numbers of stations and staffing levels for the current needs and the needs of the District in the future. Staff is preparing costing for each of the models.
- Service providers: The Committee is researching whether a larger agency such as Contra Costa County Fire Protection District could provide improved service for the District with regional resources.
- Additional source of revenue: fee or tax and amount options based on the first two tasks.
- Election dates and voter turnout: The Committee is reviewing past election data and voter turnout within the District to help forecast the best time to go out to the voters with a parcel tax.
The Committee’s goal is to continue to meet on a weekly basis and provide updates to the full Board of Directors at the monthly meeting.
In May, the Brentwood City Council, for reasons not yet firmly articulated, directed their City staff to prepare the necessary paperwork to apply to LAFCO for Brentwood to leave the District and organize a City-only fire department. They call this their option B. They plan to pursue Option A, which is to find additional revenue to save the district and Option B simultaneously.
Last but not least some of the residents from the Marsh Creek/Morgan Territory area have contacted LAFCO and San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District regarding their options to leave the District and instead receive fire service from San Ramon.
For Monday’s Board meeting, the directors came down from the dais and gathered around tables set in a circle for a more informal work session. The public was invited to participate in the discussion. Directors Pat Anderson and Steve Barr presented a plan that would establish a baseline service level, a core level of service, and enhanced level of service. After a rather contentious and boisterous exchange of ideas a consensus on what these levels would be was reached. The base level will be what services can be provided at the current revenue level, $8 to 8.5 million. The core level will be where we are now. To maintain this level of service there will have to be additional revenue, either an assessment fee or tax. The enhanced level of service will be left up to individual communities to determine. The concept of coverage zones was introduced. Multiple coverage zones could be applied across the District providing an enhanced level of service for those zones that choose to pay for it. For instance if Oakley and Brentwood, combined as a coverage zone, and the residents voted to raise additional revenue to pay for paramedics, a fourth firefighter on an engine or any other enhanced level of service, those funds would be returned to the community and applied only to the stations located in that community.
The executive committee has been assigned the task of developing multiple funding and staffing scenarios for the base and core levels. The Ad Hoc committee will continue their work and report out at the August meeting.